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Archaeology and the Bible, An Introduction
by Dr. j. k. eakins
I blend some of my own words with those of Professor Keith Schoville of the University of Wisconsin (author of Biblical Archaeology in Focus) and define archaeology as "the systematic recovery, analysis, and interpretation of the surviving evidence of human life, thought, and activity in the context of environment." Elsewhere (in an essay published in Benchmarks in Time and Culture) I have stated my belief that "the purpose of Biblical archaeology is the clarification and illumination of the Biblical text and content through archaeological investigation of the Biblical world."
Biblical students have realized for a long time that archaeology can provide a very valuable tool to use in their research for a better understanding of Scripture. Insights are often gained that other tools of study do not provide. Historically, this has been particularly true for Old Testament study, but information about the New Testament has also been made available by archaeologists. The Bible came into being in a world quite different, in many ways, from our context in the Western Hemisphere during the late twentieth century. Archaeology provides a unique and potent resource to help break down barriers of time and culture that interfere with our study of the Bible.
We need to recognize and admit that the purpose of archaeology is not to "prove the Bible," despite the misguided efforts to attempt this. As others have often noted, this approach can lead to bad archaeology and also reflects an inadequate and poor theology. One should not ask archaeology to do what it is incapable of doing--and it cannot "prove the Bible." Archaeology can, however, clarify and illuminate the Bible, and it can buttress the credibility of many statements and word-pictures found in Scripture. But it can never prove the the truth of the message of the Bible--that is a matter of faith.
Archaeology has made a significant contribution to biblical studies in many areas. These include the establishment and illumination of the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible, help with matters of geography and history, and the provision of very useful data about ancient customs and cultures which shed light on many portions of the Scriptures. In the next issue of this newsletter, illustrations will be presented which relate to questions of text, geography and history. Later, our attention will focus on some of the more puzzling portions of Scripture that have been clarified by information now available about the culture of the ancient Near East.
As most House Church Central visitors know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with just a few short sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament was written in Greek. None of the original manuscripts have survived and the determination of the best reading for existing copies of scripture is an on-going challenge for students of the Bible. Archeology has provided one tool to aid in this search. Two examples follow (many others could be cited).
In 1929, long term excavation began at a site known as Ras Shamra. Soon the French archeologists working there realized that they had discovered the long lost city of Ugarit. A large number of clay tablets were found containing texts written in several languages, the majority being a previously unknown ancient northwest Semitic language that would soon be called Ugaritic.
Biblical Hebrew is also a northwest Semitic language and a large number of texts written in a closely related language has proven to be very helpful. Many words in the Old Testament where the translation was in doubt, or even impossible, were now clarified by the texts in this "cognate" language. Also, since many of the Ugaritic texts were poetic, our understanding of the poetry of the Old Testament was enhanced. Even our knowledge of Hebrew as a language has been significantly increased.
For one wanting to see an example of the great impact of Ugaritic on Old Testament studies, I recommend examining the three volume commentary by Mitchell Dahood on the book of Psalms (Anchor Bible). Some feel that Dahood has gone to an extreme in his dependence on Ugaritic (and perhaps he has), but his commentary has certainly proved to be very helpful.
And then there are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. These documents, written mainly on leather and in Hebrew, were almost certainly the property of a religious sectarian group of Jews known as the Essenes (a few scholars disagree).
These texts help us understand the religious context of the New testament period and have provided illumination for the text of the Old Testament. For example, among the many Biblical texts found at Qumran (at least a portion of every book of the Old Testament with the exception of Esther; no New Testament texts) is a complete copy of the book of Isaiah dating to about 100 BC. This is more than 1000 years older than any previously known manuscript of Isaiah. It is reassuring to find very little difference between the old and more recent copy. Obviously the text has been copied by hand with great care through the centuries, and therefore the text upon which our present Bible is based has not been distorted by this copying process. Only a few changes have been made in recent translations of Isaiah on the basis of the Qumran manuscript and these have all been quite minor.
In addition to providing useful data about the Biblical text, archeology has also been helpful in the areas of history and geography. Recovery of numerous ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian documents has led to a greatly expanded knowledge of the Old Testament period. It is fascinating to read about the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 597/587 BC from the perspective of the enemy (Assyria, Babylonia). And it is exciting to find many of the Biblical kings mentioned in non-Biblical resources - Omri, Ahab, Juhu, and Hezekiah to name just a few.
Much that has been confusing or obscure about many facets of Old Testament history because of the brevity and agenda of the Biblical texts has now been made clear. For a classic example, scholars had long wondered why the book of Daniel speaks of Belshazzar as the last king of the Neo-Babylon Empire when it was quite certain that the final king was named Nabonidus. Eventually, however, additional Babylonian records were found which indicate that during the final years of the Empire, king Nabonidus absented himself from the city of Babylon and turned over the administration of the day-to-day affairs to a son - named Belshazzar! The Bible is correct. Belshazzar was the de facto king when the Empire collapsed.
Incidentally, many of the non-Biblical historical texts are readily available in English translation. The Ancient Near East, an Anthology of Texts and Pictures (two volumes) edited by James B. Pritchard is quite good and relatively inexpensive paperback editions can be obtained. Highly recommended!
In the realm of geography, Biblical maps and atlases have required frequent revision throughout the twentieth century. This need will continue in years to come as more data emerge as a result of archeological investigation of the Biblical world. Whole new groups of peoples and cities have been recovered in this century--the long lost Empire of the Hittites, the city of Ugarit, and, more recently, the urban complex of Ebla. Numerous Biblical cities have now been definitely identified, including some of the smaller towns visited by the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. These discoveries have had an enormous impact, not only on geography, but also on our understanding of the religious-social-economic-political context of the Biblical world. Some of the significance of this will be explored in Part Three of this series.
Breaking Down Barriers
Archaeology helps break down barriers of time and culture and thus can enhance our study of the Bible. This role of archaeology is especially fruitful in providing information about the larger context of the biblical world, particularly that of the Old Testament. As individuals and as a nation, the people of Israel did not live in isolation. They were very much influenced by the peoples and cultures of the ancient Near East. The more we know about this larger context, the better we are able to understand the Scripture.
The Bible itself does contain, of course, some helpful information about the culture in which the Hebrew people lived. This, however, by its very nature is reactive and often polemical. It is usually helpful to hear "the other side of the story," even if false. Thanks to archaeology we now have a large body of literature--primary source material--produced by neighbors of the Hebrew people, which presents the other perspective. These data often illuminate portions of the Bible. I have chosen a few illustrations from the time of the patriarchs and also from a later period.
Many of the biblical stories involving Abraham are rather opaque and difficult to understand. Consider, for example, the unusual events related in Genesis 15. In this chapter, God reaffirms the covenant established earlier with Abraham. Then, as part of an attendant ceremony, the patriarch is instructed to cut a number of animals into halves and later "a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces" (v. 17, RSV). This rather strange episode becomes more clear in the light of texts recovered from Mari in northern Mesopotamia which date from the eighteenth century BC (a bit later than Abraham). Here we learn that parties entering into a covenant would seal the agreement by cutting a donkey in half and then walking between the severed pieces. Now we are in a position to understand that God chose to use a ceremony with which Abraham was familiar. And since the covenant was unconditional, God alone (symbolized by fire) passed between the two halves. It is also interesting to note that in the Hebrew idiom one did not make a covenant, one cut a covenant--perhaps reflecting an influence from this ancient practice.
Another Mesopotamian site, Nuzi, has yielded a group of slightly later texts (fifteenth century BC) which contain records of ancient customs which are of interest to the student of the Bible. Two examples. We learn that childless couples would often arrange to have a child by proxy. Careful laws were drawn up to protect the interests of all concerned. This custom clarifies (but doesn't condone) the actions of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar found in Genesis 16. In having a child by proxy (Ishmael, born by Hagar) Abraham is simply following a common practice in the land.
An interesting story involving Jacob (Abraham's grandson) and his wife Rachel is related in Genesis 31. At great risk to herself, Rachel steals her father's "household gods" when she and her family leave Haran to return to Canaan. Many suggestions concerning this theft have been made, but have not been convincing. More recently, texts from Nuzi appear to indicate that these "gods" had more than religious significance--the holder of these items was to be recognized as the chief heir of family property. Perhaps Rachel, who (along with her sister Leah) felt that she had been defrauded by her father (vv. 14-16), was seeking by this rather drastic means to redress this wrong. One can now also see why her father was so anxious to recover this stolen property.
During the period of the Judges and the early monarchy, one of the chief problems confronted by the Hebrews was Canaanite religion, particularly Baalism. In fact, this problem would continue to haunt the people throughout their history as related in the Old Testament. Baalism became a snare and the prophets often spoke out against this cult--for one example, see the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18.
Recovery of the Ugaritic texts (see the Summer, 1996 issue of the Servant) provided biblical scholars for the first time with a large body of literature (primary source documents) describing the pantheon, the faith, and the practice of the ancient Canaanites. Now we can see more fully the nature of the religion against which the prophets reacted so strongly. Canaanite religion was nature-based and the cult of fertility was a central feature. Baal was felt to be the source and authority for abundant harvests and the growth of flocks and herds. The temples were staffed with male and female prostitutes whose "religious" vocation was to gain the favor of Baal and insure the fertility of the land. With its popular appeal both to the economy and to the sensual side of human nature, it is little wonder that so many Israelites succumbed to the attractions of this religion.
Hebrew religion often became syncretistic with persons attempting to give their allegiance both to the Canaanite deity (Baal) and the God proclaimed by the Hebrews (Yahweh). After reading the Canaanite texts, one can easily see why the prophets warned as they did against this grave danger. If you would like to read some of these Canaanite texts, I recommend the excellent translation (and helpful notes) by Michael D. Coogan in this book Stories From Ancient Canaan. Very readable and very interesting.
If these three very brief articles on archaeology have whetted your appetite to learn more about this subject, I am glad to say that there is an abundance of helpful books and periodicals in this field. I would be happy to advise you about these. You can contact me at 415-381-0694.
Copyright (c) 1977, j. k. eakins.